Likud MK Haim Katz is expected to announce his support for MK Gideon Sa’ar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenger in the upcoming primary for the party leadership.
Katz’s support for Sa’ar is a blow to Netanyahu, although the incumbent prime minister is still expected to defeat his challenger handily in the vote.
Likud confirmed Thursday that it will hold the contest on December 26.
Likud MK Etty Atia, who is close to Katz, said Sunday that she would support Sa’ar. Yoav Kisch and Michal Shir, a former aide to Sa’ar, are the only others lawmakers to have publicly expressed support for him so far.
Israeli journalist Amit Segal reported Katz’s support for Sa’ar on Sunday, but Katz has not made an official announcement.
Sa’ar is expected to hold a meeting for his primary campaign on Monday, with Katz likely to attend, the Walla news site reported.
Katz chairs the party’s central committee, and has held talks with Netanyahu about the decision to hold primaries. He is considered a relative heavyweight within the party, wielding considerable influence. He was welfare minister until he resigned in August over looming graft charges.
Katz also holds sway over Likud voters from Israel Aerospace Industries, having helmed its powerful workers union for more than 20 years. IAI, Israel’s largest state-owned company, employs some 16,000 people and is seen as closely tied to Katz.
Katz was indicted in February 2018, along with his son and other officials from the company, on corruption-related charges. Katz is suspected of bribery, fraud and breach of trust while serving as the head of the workers’ union leading up to his becoming a Likud minister in 2015.
Most Likud MKs have publicly announced support for Netanyahu, with a few notable lawmakers keeping mum.
As part of his primary campaign, Netanyahu on Saturday met with hundreds of party activists in Beit Shemesh.
The vote marks the first real challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of the party in 14 years.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar are currently the only contenders who have announced they will run in the primary.
Sa’ar argues that Netanyahu is divisive and has proved he cannot put together a coalition, after failing following two national elections in April and September.
Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”
At a Likud Central Committee summit on December 8, attended by some 800 members, Sa’ar was given a raucous reception, with both cheers from supporters and boos from allies of the premier.
The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday night, triggering national elections for the third time in under a year. The Knesset set the date of the elections for March 2.
Netanyahu is widely expected to beat Sa’ar, with sky-high support inside Likud despite charges in a trio of corruption cases against him. The party, which has only had four chiefs since the country’s founding, is seen as fiercely loyal, though Sa’ar, trying to convince voters that new blood is needed, has hammered at Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition.
Sa’ar’s bid has, however, drawn broad support from a number of influential Likud mayors, including from the party’s rightist pro-settlement wing, while many of the party’s top officials, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, MK Avi Dichter and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, have remained pointedly silent about who they would support in a leadership contest.
Netanyahu faces charges in three criminal cases that include bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The Blue and White party, Likud’s chief rival in the past two elections and in the upcoming March vote, has said it will not serve under a prime minister charged with corruption.
On Friday an opinion poll showed Blue and White opening a six-seat lead, its biggest yet, over Likud. It showed the party picking up a record 37 seats, up from 33 now, while Likud would drop from its current 32 to 31 in the 120-seat Knesset.
The survey, published by the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper, is also the first to predict that if Sa’ar wins the Likud leadership primary, the party would fare no worse than with Netanyahu at the helm — 31 seats.
Sa’ar has the edge over Netanyahu, according to the poll, since while both wouldn’t manage to lead the right-wing religious bloc to the necessary 61 Knesset seats, Sa’ar is predicted to secure 56 seats while Netanyahu falls to a low of just 51 for the right.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel lst week, Sa’ar said that internal polls show him “not far behind” Netanyahu, “and that is even before the race has properly started.”